An ELT Glossary : Copulative verbs

  • Definition : A copulative verb is a verb followed by a complement (adjective or noun phrase) which can be "equated" to the subject of the sentence. For example : be, become, get, grow, seem, appear, look, sound, taste, feel, smell, prove, remain, stay, resemble, turn

  • Examples :  
        John is / became an architect  (John = an architect)
        Paula seemed / appeared / sounded /grew angry (Paula = angry)
        The roses smell / look  wonderful. ( The roses = wonderful)
        The hypothesis proved wrong. (the hypothesis = wrong)

In The Grammar of Contemporary English, Quirk et al. divide copulative verbs into two types :
a) Current copulatives express a state : be (happy) / seem (afraid) / stay (calm)                etc
b) Resulting copulatives indicate that the complement is a result of the event or                 process described by the verb :   The lights turned green  / They  grew tired  / He got         angry.

The verb be is often referred to as "the" copula in English. In many languages it is dropped in the present tense (eg Russian, Hungarian, Arabic) causing problems for speakers of those languages learning English. Other languages have more than one equivalent for be -  eg Italian essere/stare.

NB : It would be better to say that these verbs can be used copulatively rather than that they "are" copulative. They may also be used in other ways. For example, in the following sentences the verbs are used transitively (ie followed by an object) :

Paula smelt the roses.   /  David tasted the soup.

Recommended reading

Swan and Walter, How English Works : A Grammar Practice Book, OUP